Saturday, 11 September 2010

Postcards from the edge of darkness

David Shrigley plants his cup of tea on a Nottingham Forest FC coaster and with a smile of satisfaction opens that proof copy of What The Hell Are You Doing?  lying on his  kitchen table. He has published 30 books, but few had occasioned  such anxiety as this anthology. Taking delivery last Monday was a huge relief.

 “It was like wow,”  he says, sticking his nose between the covers.  “You open  it up and you start looking at it and going through the pages one by one: good, good, good.  It isn’t always right, you know ... ”

Shrigley, depending on your point of view,  is variously cartoonist, musician, sculptor, filmmaker, humorist, and centre half, though for himself, he thinks it best just to stick with artist, “it is a good catch-all”.  

His new collection of greatest hits spans 19 years and opens with a cartoon of two rabbits.  Says one: “There is a land not far from here where rabbits live in harmony with all other creatures.” The other retorts: “That’s a complete load of shit and you know it.”  
Over the following 300 pages, he mines a mordant seam, conjuring up the same dark tradition of British humour that threw up Tony Hancock and Chris Morris. One cartoon features an executioner who beheads a prisoner, carries his axe on to a bus, then leaves it at home while he walks the dog. Another picture shows a squirrel with its  severed head between its paws. A third is a photo of a child holding up a board of magnetic letters. They spell: “i have swallowed a piece of lego”.

Nothing about Shrigley’s demeanour suggests a weird interior world, but a few minutes in his company reveals that this is a very paradoxical fellow.  Take his voice. At 41, Shrigley has lived more than half his life in Glasgow, since he arrived as a student at its art school, but he still speaks with the clipped vowels of the English Midlands.

Factor in his appearance. Tall and fastidiously well-scrubbed he cuts a prim figure, but every other weekend he dons a replica football top and drives to Nottingham to watch his team play, and to hurl abuse at match officials.  He usually goes alone to these games.

Finally there is his attitude to his fans, whose adoration he cannot begin to fathom. “You get emails about an image you made one day and these people say ‘That’s amazing - it just sums something up for me!’ What on earth do they mean?” he wonders.

“Or more worryingly, someone contacts you and says: ‘I’d suffered from clinical depression for years and your book really helped me.’ I’m like: Great – but how? They don’t realise you just make the drawing and then go off and watch CSI.”

For all his self deprecation, Shrigley is a serious artist.  His breakthrough came when he drew the cover piece in 1995 for Frieze, an influential art magazine, which  appeared  alongside an admiring essay by Michael Bracewell. Today he is  represented by six galleries around the world, and his work hangs in The Tate and in New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

He keeps good company too. Shrigley plays football in the same team as Richard Wright.  His mates include Douglas Gordon and Martin Creed. Even that little girl in the photo, holding the  magnetic letters, turns out to be the daughter of Christine Borland. 

All of these friends are Turner Prize winners or nominees. but he seems to harbour no such expectations. The current issue of a Scottish listings magazine may feature his art on its cover, but  Shrigley is  stunned to have been granted even that level of public recognition.  “When I saw that I thought, why would they do that?” he says. “I am surprised these images have any currency.”

Shrigley was born in Macclesfield and  moved to Leicester when he was two.  His upbringing, he says, was utterly normal, and left little mark on him, save for  a respect for his father’s evangelical religious views.

“If I am remarkable, it’s because I am so ordinary,” he says. “I grew up the same as everyone else, on a redbrick estate that could have been anywhere in the UK. My dad drove a second hand, Mark 2 Ford Escort,  which I learned to drive around the redbrick estate. I’m not sure it had any influence on me, except to want to leave and never go back. I’m like everyone else.  The only difference I suppose is the tenor of my graphic work - which isn’t so different either.

“I dunno,” he concludes diffidently. “It all happened by accident anyway.” 

These days,  all remains convincingly normal. Shrigley practices yoga, drinks goats milk, monitors his caffeine intake and works a regular eight hour day.  He married Kim, his long-time girlfriend in the local church this summer, but beyond the facade of the Victorian house  the couple occupy,  his weirder world intrudes. 

At one end of a living room wall is a sign he has copied from a travel agent, offering 7 nights in Zante for £199.  At the other is a picture showing a big black blob filling a square; its message urges “Enjoy quantum physics”. On the table  between them,  a book of matches warns: “DON’T SAY THE WORD SHIT”. 

Here in the kitchen, his own work may be absent, but on the table  is a video and a book  sent to him by Banksy, the street  artist, and one of his friends. Shrigley is delighted. “I like  graffiti,” he says.  “It’s transient, guerrilla, unsanctioned, uncensored.”

By contrast, he hates public art. A picture in his anthology shows people admiring a giant-sized sculpture entitled ‘CRAP’.  “It’s brilliant,” opines a stick-person critic. The truth, for Shrigley is that  all spontaneity has been knocked out of public art, through  an endless process of negotiation.  Inevitably, the end product is dull.

Like Antony Gormley’s Angel of the North? “Yes,” he says.  “It becomes a landmark. People don’t think of it as an artwork any more. When you think about that thing (the Angel), it’s not really that nice is it? There’s nothing very interesting about it, if you looked at it as a sculpture in context. Public art is like town planning. It’s boring.  They will never do anything interesting - and if they do it will be by accident.”    

His own output  relies on intuition and his first thought on graduating was to become a cartoonist. Then, as now, he works quickly.  For a show next week in Leuven, Belgium Shrigley will frame 30 pieces from 300 he made over a matter of weeks. He might save another 70.  The remainder go in the bin.

“There is a moment when the project is finished,” he says. “I just allot a certain amount of time and resources and whatever happens in that space ends up being the project.  That’s the strategy – a journey between A and B rather than arrival at B.”

The artist himself gives every impression of being settled in the city he arrived in 21 years ago. He says:  “I have civic responsibility here, because it is my home. That implies a certain commitment to the art scene in Scotland and Glasgow specifically.  That  is where my loyalties lie.”

But lest any passing nationalist should feel a warm glow of pride at that pronouncement,  Shrigley’s Scotland, like the rest of his world, turns out to be a very contrary place.   

“I am culturally Scottish,”  he declares, in the restrained voice of middle England,  “but I hate Robert Burns. I hate the Scottish football team, I hate Rangers and I hate Celtic.  I hate thistles. And I hate whisky.”

Photos by James Glossop

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